GARDINER — Don’t drink and boat.
That’s the message local, state and federal law enforcement officials want to send when they’re patrolling Maine’s waters this weekend during a coordinated national campaign, checking to see if boaters have been drinking alcohol.
The annual campaign, Operation Dry Water, was started in 2009 to reduce the number of alcohol-related boating accidents and deaths with a weekend of increased detection and enforcement of boaters under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Lt. Adam Gormely of the Maine Warden Service said boaters on Maine’s lakes should expect to see game wardens making safety checks.
“If you’ve been drinking, expect to be checked. If you’re found to be over the limit, expect to be arrested,” he said. “We’re going to take a very strict approach to it this weekend.”
Gormely said the warden service hopes to cover every body of water this weekend, but it will focus on smaller ones that don’t usually see much enforcement.
The Maine Marine Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies will patrol the coastal waters of the state for the campaign.
Representatives of the three agencies spoke about the launch of the campaign at a press conference held Wednesday morning at the Gardiner boat landing.
The project is held each year on the weekend before the Fourth of July. More boating accidents and deaths happened in July last year than any other month, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics.
The goal of this weekend’s campaign is to spread the lesson that it’s never safe to operate boats under the influence of alcohol, Gormely said.
It’s illegal in Maine, and much of the country, to operate a boat with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or more, the same illegal lever as driving a car.
Alcohol was contributed to three boating accidents and one death in Maine last year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Statistics annual report.
Alcohol use is the number one factor in recreational boating fatalities across the country.
“It’s not that we want to catch OUIs. We want to prevent OUIs,” Gormely said. “We want to bring that education piece to the boating community and teach that it’s not OK to drink and boat.”
Varying wind, sun and fog and other conditions making boating difficult regardless of whether someone has been drinking, he said.
Boaters also have significantly less experience driving boats than motor vehicles, averaging around 110 hours of boating each year, according to a release for the campaign.
“You’ve got to be on your A game the entire time. So now, if you factor in your inability to judge some of those things because of your impairment, your risk goes way up,” Gormely said. “That’s a huge thing that I’m not sure people consider. It’s your inability to make reasonable judgments of what’s happening to you and your boat.”
Gormely said some boaters will admit to wardens they wouldn’t be operating a motor vehicle at the same sobriety level — indicating the need for greater education, he said.
Even operators of slow-moving vessels like pontoon boats face risks when navigating the water while impaired, especially around other boat traffic, Gormely said.
Sgt. Daniel White of the Maine Marine Patrol encouraged boaters to use good safety practices like having life jackets, flares and fire extinguishers on board, leaving a float plan with friends or relatives and checking the marine forecast beforehand.
A float plan includes a description of the vessel, details of the route, with departure and expected return times, and contact information for everyone on board.
White said at the press conference that the Maine Marine Patrol will be concentrating along coastal waters of the state, conducting safety checks of boats.
Lt. Nick Barrow, supervisor of the U.S. Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue command center in Portland, said they’ll be focusing on state waters from Rockland south and doing joint patrols with local law enforcement agencies and the Maine Marine Patrol.
He said Coast Guard personnel will conduct safety checks with a heightened awareness of the sobriety of the operator and bring in state or local officials if they suspect the operator is under the influence.
“Our primary goal here is for all boaters to return home safe after a fun, enjoyable day on the water every single time,” Barrow said.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663